Tomorrow, the greatest cycling event in the world ever (TM) will get underway in Monaco. I am, of course, talking about the Tour de France. Watching “Le Tour”, or any other professional cycling race is a bit like watching Rancid. It’s all about willing the suspension of dis-belief. If you can see past the fact that Rancid are fat 40-somethings, very rich and no longer the street punks they dress up like, then they are great. If you can see past the fact that it’s highly possible that a good deal of the riders contesting the Tour are “chemically altered” then it too is awesome.
I love the Tour but I always dread the inevitable dope scandals that happen every year. Just when you don’t think it can get any wore, it usually does. If 1998 marked a low point in the sport of cycling, then it’s pretty much stayed down there in the gutter since. The Lance Armstrong years (1999-2005) may have felt like a reprieve, but it has since turned out that most of his main rivals in that time period have served two year suspensions or taken forced retirement due to being caught doping, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, and Alexander Vinokourov the main culprits. Lance Armstrong himself, possibly the most dope tested athlete ever, had been implicated by French newspaper L’Equipe that his 1999 victory was aided by the use of EPO.
2006, the first “post Lance” Tour de France was marred from the outset by drugs, firstly by Operation Puerto, then by the “winner” Floyd Landis being busted for having synthetic testosterone in his blood (this was discovered after his “amazing” solo breakaway on Stage 17 to Morzine, where he blitzed the field just 24hrs after blowing up and effectively losing the Tour). 2007 saw the Yellow jersey holder Michael Rassmussen sent home in disgrace after it was revealed he missed three out of competition dope tests and lied about his whereabouts in the off season, and Alexander Vinokourov was found to have someone else’s blood pumping around him. Would 2008 be any better? Of course not, Riccardo Ricco and his Saunier Duval team mate Leonardo Piepoli busted for using CERA, a thought to be un-detecatble form of EPO along with Polka Dot jersey “winner” Berhard Kohl and his Gerolsteiner team-mate Stefan Schumacher.
The 2009 edition sees most cycling fans clinging to the hope that things are changing, that the cheats are being weeded out, but I’m not holding my breath. I think this year’s Tour will be a great spectacle, but when you see that heroic breakaway succeed, or see attack after attack on seemingly vertical mountain roads, it’s that doubt in the back of my mind that tarnishes it all. But, I still love it, and as the French say “Vive Le Tour!”